Our Stories and Our Faith

Our life together, as Jesus people, is built around stories. We gather on Christmas Eve to remember God as Immanuel – God with us in every situation and circumstance of life. We celebrate Easter by listening to a wonderful story about Jesus being raised from the dead; and, on that day, we remember that, even after life and death have done their worst, God is going to raise us up new and whole. Perhaps, you remember a well-known story about Jesus feeding 5,000 people with only five barley loaves and two little fish. Maybe you remember the story of Noah’s ark. Our life together is built around stories.

I have been drawn into the story of the Exodus many times during the pandemic that has so dramatically reshaped our lives. I came to appreciate Moses more deeply as I came to see him as a man who didn’t think that he had the ability to lead God’s people into the future. I came to understand the challenges that the Israelites faced as I listened to people calling me to move in many different directions during a time when I am not always sure what’s best. God has called me to come to Mount Sinai, where I have removed my shoes and spent time in the presence of the Lord in times of daily prayer and devotion. I have even come to understand what it was like when the Israelites looked back and saw the Red Sea closing behind them. There was a sense that God was closing a chapter in their lives and that the only option was to move into an unknown future.

The story of the Exodus bears witness to God’s ability to lead us into an unknown future that is good; and, this week, I would like to encourage you to reflect upon that story. The Church still has many unanswered questions, doesn’t it? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when some are worshiping inside our buildings and others are worshiping at home? How can we continue to share the message of Jesus with young people during a time when parents are not sure that it is safe to bring their children back to Sunday School? How can we continue to be a community of Jesus people when we are being called into deep and destructive divisions? How can we continue to move forward with faith during a time when many things we have trusted in the past are changing or fading away? Here are some things to think about:

  • The story of the Exodus reminds us that, in times when we are afraid and uncertain, one of the first things we want to do is go back to a time and place in the past when we felt safe. “We remember the fish we ate in Egypt at no cost – also the melons, cucumbers, leeks, onions and garlic.” (Numbers 11:5) I remember days when we needed to put extra chairs in the aisles during worship, so that everyone could sit down. I remember days when my Dad told me, “If you are too sick to go to church, you are too sick to do anything else today” and he meant it. But times are changing. Today, only about 16% of Americans regularly attend in-person worship. What does that mean to us as a community of Jesus people? What can we learn about ourselves as we think about the Israelites creating an idealized picture of a past that they wanted to recapture even while God was leading them into the future?
  • The story of the Exodus also reminds us that God is a God who provides manna in the Wilderness (Exodus 16:13-14). The Hebrew word “manna” means: “What is this stuff?” We don’t always fully understand what God is providing as we journey into a new future. Some folks asked: “What is Zoom?” last year. I never imagined being able to create a Christmas and Easter service using DaVinci Resolve 17. We have been learning how to use YouTube Live. We have been learning how to get a copy of our weekly bulletin into people’s hands by creating a link on our church’s webpage. Sermons that have been preached at Christ’s Lutheran Church are now being heard in 36 countries. We have been using new camera equipment to enable people in California, Texas, New York, South Carolina and even Germany to join us in worship. 2021 is a year when we all need to be asking: “What is this stuff?” What tools and what opportunities is God providing, so that we can move from where we are right now to where God wants us to be? “What is this stuff?” that God is providing to help us to share the message of Jesus with others?
  • And lastly, the story of the Exodus reminds us that leading God’s people into their unknown future is not an easy task, and that those who are trying their best to lead the Church during these strange times need people to come alongside of them as they stand on the front line (Exodus 17:10-12). I often speak about leading the Church through these difficult days as drinking from a firehose. There are few decisions that are easy. People who serve us as bishops, as pastors, as Church Council members and as leaders of every sort have never done this before. Just picture Moses standing with his arms in the air knowing that God’s people win as long as he holds his hands high in the air and that they falter when his arms begin to drop. “How long can I keep doing this?” he surely asked himself. And we read that Moses did his best even when he was weary. But the story of the Exodus tells us that the battle was won after Aaron and Hur got a stone, so that Moses could sit down. And then, Aaron and Hur came alongside of Moses and physically held his weary arms in the air and the day was saved. What a story!

Our life together, as Jesus people, continues to be built around stories; and, this week, I want to encourage you to think about the story of the Exodus. How can we work together to live into the future that God is setting before us during a time when many of us want to return to our idealized picture of a past that no longer exists? How can we work together and move forward in our lives and ministry during a time when we are continuing to ask, “What is this stuff?” as we see what God is providing? And how can we continue to live well with each other and faithfully support those who are trying their best to lead us through a time that none of us could have ever imagined?

Vision and Mission

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission.

A food bank’s mission is to get groceries into the hands of hungry people. The mission of a women’s shelter is to provide a place of refuge for women who want to escape their abusive partners and to help those women get a fresh start. Some non-profits focus upon helping people who are homeless or upon preparing meals for people who are no longer able to cook. Jesus created the Church to be a community that spreads the good news of God’s love and to be a community that makes disciples.

A lot has happened in the last year.

We have not been able to gather in groups, and we have needed to stop doing things that we once considered routine. Churches locked their doors and worshiped online. We have all embraced technology in new ways. Zoom became more than what happens when you push your automobile’s gas pedal to the floor. Social media has become rather antisocial. We have become a bit harsh with each other as we’ve grown weary, and we have become people who are more bothered by little inconveniences. We are tired. We’re not sure that we want to make even small commitments. We are grieving because some of the things that we once considered important in our lives have changed, or even disappeared. And, of course, we are all asking, “What’s next?” Will things that we have enjoyed return? Will our churches, non-profits and other organizations survive? What can we do to move into a brighter future? Where do we need to focus our energy?

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

Think about a local food bank that stops distributing food. Think about a women’s shelter that stops providing a place of refuge for abused women. Think about a church that is so concerned about getting people to come back into a building (in a nation where only about 16% of adults regularly attend worship) that it loses sight of the fact that it can spread the good news of God’s love and make disciples using new and exciting technology. These are times when churches and non-profits of every kind need to be focused upon why they exist. These are times when churches and non-profits need to understand and articulate their mission clearly, and when churches and non-profits need to be focused upon what they have to offer and upon what they have been created by God to do.

The Bible says that people perish when there is a lack of vision (Proverbs 29:18). Vision gives birth to mission. Mission gives birth to passion. Passion gives birth to excitement and energy. Excitement and energy give birth to growth and vitality. Growth and vitality can create even more expansive understandings of an organization’s vision and mission, which can lead to even more excitement and energy and growth and vitality.

Churches and non-profits of every kind exist to fulfill their mission, and churches and non-profits that do not claim and live into their mission are going to disappear.

And, with that in your mind, I want to conclude by asking: “If you belong to a church or if you choose to participate in the life of any non-profit organization, how would you define your group’s mission?” “What is God calling you to do?” “What value are you bringing into the lives of those you serve?” These are critical questions we need to ask as we continue to emerge from these challenging times and as we prepare to move forward with hope, direction and focus in these quickly changing days.

Framing

My wife enjoys buying picture frames in antique stores.

She has a keen sense of observation and an even more deep awareness of how picture frames can enhance the things that we hang on the walls in our home. She, also, leaves many picture frames hanging on the walls in antique stores because she does not like the frame, or because she decides that a particular frame will not enhance our home décor.

Do you realize that you frame things every day?

You frame everything that happens in your life, and then you decide whether what has happened is good or bad, beneficial or harmful. We all think about life in certain ways because of our past experiences, because of our personality, because of the ways that we’ve learned to interact with others, and because we want to continue to be a part of groups that are important to us.

But the challenge is that how we frame things affects the ways we interpret almost everything that happens in our lives.

Think about a story from the life of Jesus. Jesus taught and healed people in the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus preached in Galilee, cleansed a leper, healed a person who was paralyzed, calmed a storm, and even raised a little girl from the dead. And Jesus tried to do the same thing in Nazareth – his own hometown. But then framing became a challenge. We read that people were astonished by Jesus’ teaching (Mark 6:2), and people were amazed by the incredible things that Jesus was doing. But all of a sudden, people began to put a different frame around what was happening. “Is not this the town carpenter?” (Mark 6:3) “Isn’t this the son of Mary, and a man whose own brothers and sisters are still living in town?” (Mark 6:3) And, suddenly, people who were astonished by what Jesus was doing became offended because of the way they framed things. In fact, Jesus even says to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) And it is all because of framing. The ways that we interpret what happens in our lives are always shaped by our past experiences. And, when we put a nice frame around the things that are happening to us, all is well. But when put an ugly frame around things, we can be drawn into conflicts, disagreements, and broken relationships.

The way you frame what happens in your life is often far more important than what has actually happened.

You are far more likely to be drawn into conflict with people when you wrap things that happen in an ugly frame. You are far more likely to close your ears to the thoughts and opinions of people who disagree with you when you frame everything with an “us” versus “them” mentality. The frames that we put around the actions of other people can be shaped by our biases about the color of a person’s skin, the language that a person speaks, the religion that a person embraces, or even the place of a person’s birth. Ugly frames can be created by political differences, by different visions of the future, by a fear of the unknown, and even by the always-shifting sands of time that bring unwanted change.

But framing can also help us to live our lives in a better way.

We can try to remember that most people are trying to do their best in life even during times of conflict. We can try to unravel the “us” versus “them” type of thinking that is so prevalent these days and try to listen more carefully to the ideas and opinions of others. We can try to remember that people who have a different skin color, who speak another language, who embrace a different religion, or who were born in another county have experiences in life that we do not fully understand. We can try, as the 16th Century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, suggested, to put better-looking frames around the things people do by trying to interpret their actions in the best possible way.

And so, I would like to challenge you to think about framing this week.

What kind of frames are you putting around things that happen in your life? How are the frames you put around things affecting your relationships? How are the frames that you put around large groups of people interfering with your ability to see that we have been created by a God who tells us that we all have both dignity and worth? How can the frames that you put around the things that create conflict in your life be changed, so that times of conflict can lead to deeper levels of understanding and appreciation for people who do not always agree with you?

Independence Day

Americans will celebrate independence and freedom this weekend. America’s Founders dreamed of a nation where people would have a voice in their government, and they created a Democratic Republic where government officials are elected by the people and serve for a specific term. Many folks try to trace the roots of American freedom all the way back to the day when King John “Lackland” signed the Magna Charta in 1215 AD, but the comparison between the Magna Charta and the American Declaration of Independence is a bit of a stretch. America was founded upon representative government, and the earliest dreams for American life were build upon the idea that we all have the right to life, to liberty and to the pursuit of happiness.

The Bible speaks about freedom, independence, and liberty in several places. Jesus tells us that the truth will set us free (John 8:32). Jesus also says, “If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (John 8:36) reminding us that He came into the world to set us free from the power of sin and death that we cannot escape in any other way. And lastly, in his first letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul talks about our personal freedom, as Christians, in a different way (I Corinthians 8:1-13) as he speaks about whether Christians can eat food that has been sacrificed to idols.

Corinth was a very unusual place in the time of St. Paul. Corinth was a major city where people came from all around the known world to sell their products. Corinth was, also, a place that was religiously diverse. There were hundreds of temples in Corinth, so that people who wanted to worship their god could easily do so. St. Paul even talked about the fact that the Greeks had build an altar to an unknown God (Acts 17:23) because they wanted to make sure that all of the bases were covered. And this created a big problem. Christians who wanted to eat meat did not know if the meat had been carved from an animal that had been sacrificed to another god hours earlier. Early Christians struggled because they were trying to figure out what it means to be free in Christ while they also tried to be careful to avoid eating meat that had been offered to other gods.

St. Paul’s response to this dilemma was an interesting one. He reminded the Corinthians that he had been set free by Jesus, and that he could celebrate his independence by eating meat without worrying about where the meat originated. Imagine St. Paul simply eating a hamburger on July 4th without worrying about its source. Christians do that all the time even though people from other religious traditions would never do that, right?

Then St. Paul throws in a twist. He reminds the Corinthians that he is free in Christ to eat his July 4th hamburger; however, because he sees that doing that is causing other people around him to feel uncomfortable, he says, “I’m not going to do it.” In fact, St. Paul writes: “Take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block for the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols?” (I Corinthians 8:9-10) What St. Paul is saying is: “I have freedom and independence, but I need to be sensitive to others when I am exercising my personal rights and liberty.” St. Paul reminds us that personal freedom and liberty are wonderful things; however, as we live in community with other people, we need to live in ways that are considerate and respectful of others. This is, also, an important part of good citizenship.

And so, as we celebrate our independence, liberty, and freedom on July 4th, let’s also remember that we live in a diverse nation and that living well with each other is always built upon the foundation of respect and care for others. We have been set free from tyrannical government, but our nation is still built upon creating community with each other and caring for each other. We are free in Christ, and we live in a nation where we have many rights and personal freedoms to celebrate, but our Founders also realized that our nation can only be strong and healthy when we continue to respect and to care for each other.